Yichang (Hubei Province)
The hotel manager who we called Gow was a great help, he arranged our onward train ticket and we didn't even have to leave the hotel for this service. We had breakfast / lunch in a shopping mall, again the mall was a busy place and everyone seemed to be looking at us especially when it came to paying for the goods. We eventually figured out that to buy something you need a store card which you charged up, anyway by the time we'd put money on the card and found a seat, our food was cold.
After a stroll around we headed back to the hotel where we played cards in the restaurant. We'd checked out that morning and booked our overnight train for 12pm so we had a lot of time to kill and we were both freezing. The only sensible option was to check into a budget room for the rest of the day. 22.00, we checked out again and caught a taxi to the station to catch our overnight train. When I climbed onto my bunk it was obvious there was far less head room than other trains we'd been on (my head was about 4inch from the ceiling). After about ten minutes the lights went off and it was pitch black; I retrieved my head torch which temporarily blinds any poor onlooker who dares to look into the ray of photons. The old couple below us appreciated the light as they were half way through their supper, which they kindly offered us. I was a bit dubious when placing my hand into the plastic bag containing some kind of meat but felt obliged to take a piece. We both chewed on what looked to be a piece of cow's tail; the meat was delicious but pretty spicy. We were both left with a piece of bone which we couldn't dispose of, the kind old lady pointed at the table indicating for us to spit the bone from the top bunk onto the table. Lloydy spat his first and it landed on the small bone filled table, mine wasn't as successful and landed in the centre of the ladies bed, unfazed by this the women picked up the bone and placed it amongst the other bones - I felt terrible. The old man offered us more meat so I climbed down and joined in with the mid night feast, I had a conversation with the old man but it was a struggle, he couldn't speak English and my Chinese isn't improving.
Huaihua (Hunan Province)
10.00, there was no problem sorting out transportation to our hotel in Huaihua; taxi drivers and touts mobbed us as soon as we exited the station. We jumped in the back of a tuk tuk once I'd broken free from one lady who wouldn't let go of me or my bag.
After a short five minute drive we were checking in at the Mingzhu hotel greeted by a reception of giggling girls. None of the staff spoke English so we had to wait for a while before the young petite hotel clerk who could speak English, joined us at reception. Gemini showed us to our room and took us to the bank to change money; she sorted out our train tickets before translating the food menu in the hotel restaurant. I was extremely grateful for her help and kept repeating "thank you, Xie xie" to which she replied in perfect English "it is my pleasure".
The day had gone well apart from not being able to change US traveller's cheques; it seems half of China have never seen them before, when you find a bank that can exchange them you almost wish you hadn't bothered with the time it takes.
We purchased a few beers from the hotel bar and watched Avatar; I've managed to download quite a lot of stuff from kickasstorrents despite the 'Great Fire Wall', documentaries including programmes the Chinese government wouldn't want their people to see, however when I tried to download from www.kickasstorrents.com yesterday it seems that the site is also now banned in China; strange coincidence.
After the film we returned to the restaurant and ordered more food, sounds pretty straight forward but it wasn't. The staff had to ring Gemini who translated our order, she sounded like she was in bed at the time, I thanked her again in a sincere grateful voice to which she groaned "it my pleasure" - bless.
After our complimentary breakfast we had a stroll around Huaihua; the city didn't feature in my rough guide book and the internet didn't help much so we were walking blind.
Huaihua seemed to be quite a large city with a population of around five million, situated in the mountainous region of Hunan the city seemed to be quite well developed although Hunan is renowned for its rural poverty.
After a delicious fondue soup type thing for dinner, we soon found ourselves back at the hotel packing up our gear, unimpressed with the city.
We both wanted to go for a sauna and Jacuzzi but we refused as it seemed ridiculously expensive for £50 each, I soon figured out it wasn't just a Jacuzzi and sauna the sleezy rat looking bloke was offering it seemed that the adjacent room was full of hookers.
Train to Guilin (Guizhou and Guangxi Provinces)
4.30, no human should be up at this time but we had a 6.10am (10 hour) train to catch from Huaihua to Guilin. We arrived at the train station but struggled to find our gate, eventually we found it and settled down cracking open a packet of muffins for breakfast.
6.00 no one was standing up which is extremely strange as the Chinese get very agitated before boarding a train, queuing early and shunting each other forward. The people around us were still sat down eating seeds (throwing the shells on the floor), and hocking / spitting (again on the floor). The station was pretty cold however I felt a little bit clammy with sweat now 'have we missed the train', 'are we at the right gate', I was asking myself. I studied the notice point for a bit and could see one other number in the line of Chinese writing which was the number 74. The train was meant to arrive at 5.56 so I guessed that the 74 was the delay time meaning it would be now getting in at 7.10. Sat on a cold stainless steel bench we both resorted to our audio books and entered a meditative type state for an hour.
The train wasn't much warmer and I could see condensation coming from my mouth. I climbed onto my middle bunk and wrapped the duvet around me. After a long sleep I listened to five hours of audio books ranging from the history of China to Richard Feynman's famous lectures on Physics (Yeah Lucy I know - Geeeek;) but without a book or audio the long train journeys here would be painfully boring. Go on Lucy - "whats more boring than Chinese history".
I sat at the window for part of the journey as the scenery was pretty impressive; the bizarre rock formations surrounded us like the teeth of a carnivorous beast, 'Guilin shanshui jia tian xia' is a popular saying in China which means Guilin's mountain and water scenery is the best under heaven; we were both looking forward to seeing more of the scenery here.
The 'Grand hotel' was very impressive, flash cars pulled up outside and the lobby looked slick. James and I arrived looking like a couple of Hobos; however we were treated like any other guest and directed to our contemporary, well furnished room.
Later that evening we ate out, the prices were a little more expensive here, probably because of the amount of tourists the Li River attracts. The temperature was a lot warmer and we strolled back to our hotel via the huge night market with only a few layers on.
Guilin (Guangxi Provinces)
After our breakfast we needed to sort one or two things out for the next leg of the trip including cash, train tickets and the bus route to the river. The first stop was the bank, as we entered the establishment a group of unofficial ladies approached us shouting "exchange, exchange" we soon realised the women were trading on the black market but couldn't believe there were allowed to do this within the 'bank of China'. We shook off the women and I managed to exchange my traveller's cheques after a filling in a tedious number of forms in my rain drenched clothes.
Whilst walking to the CITS to order out train tickets we spotted cages and buckets outside of restaurants. Upon approaching them we realised they contained animals of all species, we'd seen all sorts of delicacies on the food menus whilst travelling through China however it was the first time we'd seen caged live stock. The large buckets contained cat fish, shark, turtles and crabs and the cages contained rabbits, snakes, chickens, pheasants and even a raccoon. Raccoons are noted for their intelligence and studies have shown that they are able to remember the solution of tasks up to three years later - if only someone had shown this cute mammal how to pick a lock. The look of the raccoon's distressed face played on my mind a little and I really wanted to buy it as a pet but getting it back through customs may have been problematic.
We'd bought our onward train ticket to Shenzhen (£25), planned the bus route to Yandi (Li river jetty) and ate noodles for tea - all in all a successful day.
I woke up pretty early to check the weather; looking out of the 6th floor window the weather was yet again disappointing. We decided to venture out anyway and catch a bus to Yangdi, when we approached the train station a woman approached us and told us her husband had a raft which could take us down the river. We haggled her down to 100rmb (about £9.50) which paid for the bus and boat; this seemed a bargain because the tourist office wanted around £40 for the same type of trip. A little dubious that this could be a scam we didn't let the women out of our site. She then passed us to another lady who took us to catch the bus, if it hadn't been for her we would have never found the secluded bus stop hidden away amongst high rise apartments. As we approached the bus stop the bus started to pull away, the women barged passed pedestrians trying to gain on the vehicle. I sprinted along the road which was less busy than the pavement and eventually caught up with the bus and after banging on its side the driver's assistance opened up the door and let me on.
The bus trip probably took about an hour and a half due to the driver stopping and going back for people on the other side of the road. It seems any bus in China doesn't go anywhere until it's full. Eventually we stopped at a cross junction and jumped onto a smaller bus which winded its way through picturesque villages stopping at Yangdi jetty.
When we boarded the small raft the weather changed; the rain had stopped and the scenery had become quite eerie as the mountains jutted out of the mist like a scene from Lord of the Rings. Fan Chengda, a Chinese song dynasty scholar once said"I often sent pictures of the hills of Guilin which I painted to friends back home, but few believed what they saw.", it's easy to believe that if you'd never seen scenes like this on TV or the internet you probably wouldn't believe the paintings of Fan Chengda. It was hard to imagine how these rocks had formed; apparently the topography of Guilin and its surroundings were four fold, Ray Beiersdorfer, a geologist at Youngstown State University in Ohio state's "First, you need hard, compact carbonate rock. In Guilin, it's Devonian limestone. Secondly, you need strong uplift, in this case provided by the collision of India with Asia to form the Himalaya. Third, you need a Monsoon climate of high moisture during the warmest season. Finally, the area must not have been scoured by glaciers, which this region wasn't."
We cruised down the ghostly lake and could make out nearby villages; some of China's minorities inhabit the mountainous regions, including Zhuang (China's largest minority), Yao, Miao and Dong peoples. Larger boats passed us and were packed with tourists, me and James were pleased that again we'd paid a fraction of the price and had a more peaceful and relaxing vessel.
After about an hour and a half we moored on a small rocky strand of land and climbed up some steps to a wooden hut containing a family of locals, open stove and excellent food. I ordered chicken but they told me it would cost the equivalent of £7 which seemed a little expensive for China, however this was for the full chicken which was running around outside. I changed my mind and opted for beef which was curing over the open stove. After a delicious meal and pot of tea we jumped back onto our raft and to our amazement the sun was shining; we couldn't believe our luck. During the second half of the trip we saw buffalo and men fishing with cormorants. Humans have historically exploited cormorants' fishing skills, in China, Japan, and Macedonia, where they have been trained by fishermen. A snare is tied near the base of the bird's throat, which allows the bird only to swallow small fish. When the bird captures and tries to swallow a large fish, the fish is caught in the bird's throat. When the bird returns to the fisherman's raft, the fisherman helps the bird to remove the fish from its throat. It's not uncommon for the fisherman to give the bird every seventh fish as an incentive.
We terminated our boat trip in Xing Ping and jumped onto what looked like a golf buggy, after a very bumpy ride we arrived at the larger bus terminal where we caught our onward bus to Yangshuo. Yangshuo was gorgeous so we decided to stop there once we'd checked out of our hotel in Guilin (5 nights in Guilin and 4 nights in Yangshuo).
After the bus ride home we decided to eat in our hotel room and view the days photos on my net book reliving the once in a life time river boat cruise, the photos didn't disappoint.
We ate Corn on the cob for breakfast which we bought from one of the many mobile rickshaws before heading to Elephant Trunk Island. This large limestone formation shaped like a giant elephant is on every postcard in Guilin and a must see attraction, you can just about see the rock from the road but a wall of Osmanthus stop you from taking a good photograph, so we paid a small entrance fee to view the site. After a steep climb up to the top of the limestone elephant you could see panoramic views of Guilin, the two rivers split the city into two and giant rocks jut out of the city dwarfing any man made structure. Guilin was used as the planet Kashyyk in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and from this vantage point it was obvious why. The most impressive view of Elephant Island was looking back at the rock from across the river; you could easily make out an elephant, it looked like it was drinking from the Li River and its trunk formed an remarkable arch over the water.
After leaving the park we headed north east of the city and climbed up another limestone rock called Fubu Shan. Fubo Shan is a complimentary peak, whose grottoes are carved with worn Buddha images from the Tong and Song dynasties. At its base is the 'sword-testing stone' a stalactite hanging within ten centimetres of the ground, which appears to have been hacked through. We climbed 200 metres to the summit and again took some panoramic photos of Guilin before heading back to the night market for a spot of shopping. I've accumulated so many artefacts from my travels I've had to purchase another bag which I'm hoping Mel will take home after our ten days in Hong Kong.
Our last day in Guilin was primarily spent strolling around 'Seven Star Park' which boast an extensive collection of limestone formations. With a handful of small wooden pagoda peaks arranged in the shape of the Great Bear (Big Dipper) constellation, a large cavern, and a few wild monkeys; it looked like a well maintained miniature Guangxi. James and I managed to lose each other for over an hour but luckily stumbled upon one another walking in opposite directions. We'd seen the majority of the park alone so decided to call it a day; when trying to exit the large compound we found a break in one of the gates so naturally snuck through to the other side. We'd stumbles upon a zoo which looked like it had been shut down, some of the cages were empty but other animals hadn't been relocated, there were tigers, bears, exotic birds, camels and deer all penned up in small dirty cages.The site of wild animals caged up without a run was pretty upsetting, we found an enclosure of monkeys and fed them branches which we ripped from trees, I've never seen animals eat so quickly.
The walk home from the park was quite long; we were both tired and decided to watch a film with a few beers. The beer here is really cheap but really weak at 3.6%, however after an exhausting day and a few bottles I was soon asleep.
Yangshuo (Guangxi Provinces)
12.00 We checked out of Hotel Grand and caught a taxi to the train station before being ushered onto a bus to Yangshuo (70km). Yangshuo meaning Bright Moon, rose to prominence during the mid 1980's, when foreign tourists on the Li River cruises realised that beyond simply spending an hour here buying souvenirs, the village made a great place to settle down and get on intimate terms with the river and its peaks. Yangshuo now a magnet for tourists both Chinese and foreign has a perpetual holiday atmosphere about it, our hotel (Hotel West Street) was surrounded by fast food establishments and a balcony overlooking the loud bustling street.
It was pretty easy to find our bearings in the small quaint but touristy town and even if you were slightly lost you could ask one of the English speaking touts who were offering everything from trips to young girls. We enquired about motorbikes but soon discovered they were rather expensive, we opted for a couple of scooters which we'd pick up the following morning.
For £8 a day the mopeds weren't that cheap to hire, we were renting proper bikes in Thailand for £7, however we figured to get off the tourist track we'd have to get the bikes and eat street food to keep within our budget. After a duck hotpot (£1) we rode our peds back to the hotel to pick a couple of things up before the road trip. We were approached by a young Australian lad (Lachlan) who asked if he could tag on to us for the day, we agreed and the three of us rode off to join the highway. Riding on the right felt pretty weird but we soon gained enough confidence to start overtaking some of the bigger vehicles. Our helmets resembled the one worn by fireman Sam and felt pretty loose, in fact it was so loose at top speed the helmet fell off my head and strangled my neck, Lloydy wasn't so lucky his helmet fell off and smashed onto the ground (just missing my bike). We pulled over to review the damage; Lloydy's helmet had a hole in it so we thought our deposit was long gone.
Our first stop was moon hill, named after a large crescent shaped hole that pierces through the large limestone formation. It took us a while to find so we pulled over and asked for directions, to my disbelief Lachlan aged 19 had been in Beijing studying Chinese for five months and could speak Mandarin. The women jumped on the back of his bike and after dropping her off in town she gave us clear directions. Having someone with us who could speak English and Chinese was like a gift from the Gods.
Being typical lads we soon found ourselves off road, the bikes where all over the place and it wasn't long before Lachlan took a slight tumble. We travelled through some rural villages, there wasn't a tourist in sight; just us boys and our bikes (now caked in mud). We stopped near an orchard and parked the bikes in a ditch before indulging in fresh fruit straight from the trees; I've never experienced such juicy oranges. We spotted a large cave high up on one of the mountains and decided to climb the steep accent, the cave boasted large impressive stalactites. We climbed up through the cave and looked down at the tiny village below us; this was real rural China and an unbelievable scene - one which I'll never forget.
We contemplated camping in the cave but figured temperature would drop pretty low in the evening plus we'd already paid for our accommodation, so we rode home stopping off for fuel and a bike wash; we really couldn't take the bikes back in the condition they were in, grass was hanging from all three bikes and you couldn't see the paintwork for mud. Lloydy placed his damaged helmet under the seat of his bike; we returned the bikes in a gleaming condition and managed to get all of our deposit back. We celebrated over a couple of beers and some food.
In the evening we had a street bbq, we ate a selection of meat and fresh fish. The fish were still swimming around in a bowl until the Chinese bloke skewed a pair of them. The weirdest thing on offer was a boar's penis which was a bit chewy and a pig of a thing to eat.
After breakfast we booked a cooking course for the afternoon (£10). When we arrived at our class the only other people on our course were Linda and Sabrina, two Swiss girls who seemed nice to get on with. Before we were allowed in the kitchen we had to visit the food market to familiarise ourselves with Chinese vegetables, the food market was pretty interesting however we witnessed dogs being butchered which was pretty upsetting. The dogs and cats were kept in cages at the back of this particular stall but there were all sorts of body parts on show, it looked like a bomb had gone off there. I managed to get a couple of photos of this distressing sight but the owner started to shout at me, I told him to P!$$ off, he didn't speak English but this universal word seems to work in most places. I'd try most things once but you've got to draw the line somewhere, I quizzed our teacher about the ominous sight and she told me not many people eat dog these days and that she'd only tried the tough meat once and wasn't that impressed with it. Anyone who eats dogs normally defends there action by stating it's no different to eating a cute lamb to which they have a point however it was the small cages they kept them in which angered me the most.
Back at the restaurant we changed into our aprons and hats and started to prepare the three course meal which we'd selected. The first course was stuffed egg plant, the second beer fish and the third Gung Boa chicken which was unbelievable, we couldn't believe how good the food was and that we'd cooked it.
In the evening we met up with Lachlan and bumped into Linda and Sabrina again, we all ended up in a Karaoke room, singing until the early hours of the morning.
Both hung over we crawled out of bed and onto West Street for breakfast. I managed to check my emails but the internet was pretty useless around Guilin so I gave up after about two hours of trying to communicate with the outside world.
After yet another hotpot we visited Lachlan's hotel and played pool on the roof top bar, we were soon joined by a motley crew of characters, Leo (France), Liam (Ireland), Matt (Wales) and Alex (England). The night started quiet quietly but we were soon playing drinking games before heading to another roof top bar which was packed with people. It seemed everyone we'd said hello to over the last few days were all here in this one bar. We drank snake wine from a large container which still contained the snake, after a few of these shots I can't remember much more of the night but was glad that we both got home ok.